Logic and Emotion

Published on Author Christopher Fahey23 Comments
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Design is often characterized as a collaboration between two entirely different modes of thought — logical thinking and emotional thinking. In the various fields of design for interactive products, I think these different modes may be starting to manifest in the job titles we give ourselves.

Catriona Cornett publishes a fun and insightful, and cleverly conceived, blog called inspireUX, in which she regularly publishes short and thoughtful quotes from UX people, some famous, some not so much, but always interesting and inspiring. Quite often her quotation selections address these different philosophies directly.

Today’s item got me thinking:

“Enough confidence to believe you can solve any design problem and enough humility to understand that most of your initial ideas are probably bad. Enough humility to listen to ideas from other people that may be better than your own and enough confidence to understand that going with other people’s ideas does not diminish your value as a designer. True concern for the comfort and happiness of other people, including your users and your teammates.”

Larry Tesler in Designing for Interaction by Dan Saffer on what makes a good interaction designer

The last sentence is key. I suspect sometimes that a key difference between the temperament of people who self-identify as “information architects” versus “interaction designers” is increasingly turning out to be empathy. All UX people claim to possess this quality, and Larry Tesler isn’t the first to point out its necessity as a design skill. But is it really a quality found in equal amounts across all IA/HCI/UXD professionals?

I’ve noted before that many, if not most, of the practicing IAs I’ve known seem, at least to me, to have major difficulties with the whole empathy thing, preferring instead to “geek out” on the design itself. They like to dive deep into structure and logic and organization, often at the expense of stepping back and imagining how others will experience a product. And for many IAs the ability to do that kind of deep structural dive and understand the full implications of information and process design options is precisely what makes them really great at what they do — designing seamless, efficient, logical, powerful interactive systems. I mean that.

The plethora of UX tools and exercises, from personas to mental models to contextual inquiry, designed to enable IAs to break out of that logical focus and to get “into the heads” of their users bespeaks, I sometimes think, the degree to which that audience needs those tools. Not that all designers can’t benefit from a deeper understanding of their users and audiences, but somehow the degree to which the IA and HCI communities seem to crave these tools, to a degree that many other design professionals don’t come close to, may be telling.

Self-identified interaction designers, however, seem to — almost by definition — center their thinking around users. Even the job titles suggest a different focus, on things versus people: Information architects architect information. Interaction designers design interactions. Some designers seem to naturally conduct many of the aforementioned empathy exercises almost subconsciously, I’ve seen, and are able to articulate their imagining of user experiences in a way that is often the instantaneous equivalent of a time-consuming mental model or persona exercise. It’s an emotional skill, I think.

Of course I am going to say this: Both modes of operation, logic and emotional design, are valuable, and in fact they compliment complement each other. And often both modes of thinking are found in the same person (which might explain why so very, very many of us are deeply torn between calling ourselves information architects versus interaction designers).

Of course, I could be 100% backwards here, or just plain 100% wrong. What do you think?

(Post title, of course, stolen from David Armano)

23 Responses to Logic and Emotion

  1. Hallelujah Brother. ;-)

    I would say though that “interaction designers” are not immune to this problem and that too many interaction designers in IxDA for example are too influenced by the rationality of the UX/IA community towards quantification and logic as a means to conceiving solutions.

    What I’ve noticed where the real split is, is on education or experience (or both). Go to design/art school and you are trained in pretty for sure, but you are also trained in true emotive explorations which means not only are you expressing but you are expressing to an audience. Bearing “your soul” so to speak takes a lot of trust, and you can only trust whom you imagine.

    so I think you are looking in the right direction, but at the wrong peak. There is this issue in the UX community of being overly rational, but I’m not sure I see it in the titles so much as in the education & experience.

    – dave

  2. @Sarven: Wow, that’s a really great insight into the professional development in this field — that we often go where our colleagues expect us and want us to go rather than where our own talents and desires might actually take us.

    To cross that over with @David Malouf, In the case of UX, the desire for software-oriented businesses to justify expenditure on UX in the first place often forces designers to lean a little towards the quantitative and logical methodologies when that might not be where their natural design process would necessarily bring them.

  3. Since you ask, I’ll tell you what I think.

    Increasingly, I think that even the “good sound UCD practice” we so often invoke – I’ve been no exception – is merely a substitute for inspiration. If used properly, it can help you avoid the worst blunders, but it’s best thought of as hygiene. It’s simply not capable of transcending its inherent framework of limitations; by contrast, a Dieter Rams, a Sam Hecht or a Jasper Morrison has no need of the apparatus of justification lesser designers gin up around their efforts.

    So you’re correct, so far as you go. The reason the cavalcade of tools and models and how-to articles you see in so much UX-centric media makes me so desperately sad is because all of that effort is so clearly intended to help people be better at their jobs.

    Well, guess what? Nobody who thought that way ever produced anything of worth. As I mentioned to you last month, I don’t believe you can name three concrete interventions of value that originated within the UX community. Certainly, if you look at all the disruptive, expectation-resetting innovations that have appeared over the last 25 years in the way digital media are envisioned, produced and used, very very damn few of them came from people who participate in the UX community and its events, either as audience or as presenters.

    So my message to people who want to be good at this stuff is to stop paying attention to UX gurus, stop reading UX books, stop attending UX events, stop following UX Twitterers, and especially stop reading people like David Armano. Not one of those pursuits will ever help you understand what it is to be human if you don’t already – and understanding what it is to be human is 90% of the battle.

    /high horse

  4. @AG: Dayum! Would you perhaps agree that UX tools help either with (a) bringing a whole team, on the client/boss and the design team side, together around a concept, or (b) retrofitting a process onto what was essentially out-of-the-blue inspiration to help convince others of the idea’s worth?

    Might you not also agree that many UX tools help inspire out-of-the-blue ideas? I mean that “Research X dictated Solution Z” and “I hung out with users and thought of this awesome UX idea” can often both be the result of roughly the same UX tool or process.

  5. Mmmmaybe (b). Maybe. And even then, while you might not ever be able to admit it to clients or other stakeholders (shareholders!) until long after all the results are in, you should know in your heart where the design insight actually came from.

    And if “hanging out with users and paying attention” is a tool, then I’m a Rotarian. Since when did anyone with integrity have to dress up common sense, careful observation and clear thinking as anything but?

  6. @AG: Oh, and thanks for using the word “cavalcade”, conjuring for me images of a parade of black and white animated anthropomorphized cartoon deliverables smiling and marching across a 1950’s-era Philco TV set. It’s far better than “plethora” which I thought needed improvement.

  7. Maybe I’m being overly picky here… not-so-recent advances in neuroscience have put to rest the idea that emotions and logic are some how in conflict. The book Descarte’s Error by Antonio Damasio goes into this in some detail, but the upshot is that there are real live “Vulcans” – people with certain types of brain damage that inhibit their emotions, but rather than being cold calculating logic machines, this also impairs their ability to be logical. Apparently, logical thinking depends on emotional thinking, assuming it makes sense to even draw a distinction between the two.

    Interestingly, not all cultures draw that distinction. In Sanskrit, the word “citta” refers simultaneously to heart and mind, probably much closer to the actual functioning of the brain.

    So, I’d instead propose that the real fundamental split here is not between logic and emotion, but between self-directed and other-directed ways of thinking — self-directed being “how do I think/feel about this” vs. “how do others think/feel about this”.

    @AG, I think you have a point, but are also confused! If I may be so rude: you seem to suggest, in a somewhat Romantic, anti-modern vein, that we should drop this unseemly reliance on cold, unhuman, technocratic UX techniques and instead embrace Design as a transcendent, unknowable essence or force, in the mode of a Genius Designer.

    I would suggest that the real reason why UX has made little impact as you describe (correctly, I think) is because it draws on those same anti-modernist, anti-intellectual, anti-technology roots, particularly Heidegger, who actually coined the term “usability”. Heidegger viewed modern technology as a monstrosity, and idealized a more primitive form of technology that he saw as more harmonious, more in keeping with the essence of being. I believe the UX community is unaware of the influence that this line of thinking has had.

    Personally, I’d like to see the UX community include a more balanced perspective on technology and tool use, along the lines of embodied cognition, Clark and Chalmers’ extended mind hypothesis, etc.

  8. @alsomike: Thanks for making that distinction between approaching problems based on ability (the idea that your talents as an emotional or a logical thinker are somehow separable) and style (the idea that you approach problems with different expectations and preferences).

    I am pretty sure that I am not a firm believer that people generally can be naturally better at emotional empathy versus logical deduction. I am probably oversimplifying things here.

    Still, there are clearly fundamental differences in approaching design problem solving, and if one approach prefers to depends on evidence and the other does not, is it really so wrong to call these logical and emotional approaches if that is the net effect? If I prefer to work based on convincing external evidence, am I not practicing a “logical design” approach, regardless of my personal talents or abilities?

    Can we talk about these differences without implying that some people are emotionally dull on one side and illogical on the other? I don’t know, but I think you do make it convincingly clear that it’s a pitfall we should try to avoid.

  9. @alsomike: You obviously don’t know me very well, and you’re right, you are being rude. I sure don’t need lectures on old Marty and his oeuvre from you.

    Your characterization of my comment is pure strawman. To clarify still further: I don’t think that the quality which makes a good designer is in any way mystical, ineffable or transcendent. I *do* believe it is exceedingly difficult to quantify, even harder to abstract away from its lived, bodily, experiential context, and still harder than that to inculcate in others.

    This part of my pushback essentially boils down to an argument from economics. Since, as I have argued many, many times before, so much of what makes a gifted designer is a matter of mindset rather than skillset or toolset, it is simply easier and more efficient to find people with the correct attitude and acquaint them with the few practical daily tools they’ll need to do interaction design than it is to graft inspiration onto competent toolpushers.

    More broadly, though, neither emotion nor logic is going to fix “UX.” The “community” as presently constituted is as absent from the vast majority of daily interactions (ATMs, ticketing and point-of-sale systems, taxi and transit payment systems) as architects are from the built environment. For every Antenna Design gem, there are ten thousand interfaces designed by marketers and engineers, which is about the same ratio of relevance (and disproportionate and ultimately dishonest attention) that name architects enjoy.

    The world generates design problems at a wildly disproportionate rate to that at which it nurtures talented designers. We will always be playing catch-up (at best) and skirting total irrelevance (as the normal case). Better to accept this fact and its implications – first among which is that in any conversation of this type, we will always already primarily be talking to and pleasing one another.

  10. I actually have come to an entirely different conclusion. I’ve found that people who identify themselves as Interaction Designers typically geek out on the latest technology/wizardry and sacrifice empathy for coolness. Where IA’s focus more on facilitating users’ goals, which is nothing but empathy.

  11. @AG:

    “Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
    Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
    Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine
    Unweave a rainbow”

    Keat’s was referring to “natural philosophy” i.e. science; seems to have much in common with your disdain for mere “toolpushers”. My view is that this attitude of putting design on a pedestal has afflicted the field for far too long, and actually has the effect of self-marginalization.

    To draw an analogy, the Victorian glorification of femininity put it outside the mundane, ordinary political and economic sphere, simultaneously elevating and disempowering women. I’ve encountered the same condescension toward designers: “Don’t you designers worry your little heads about all this complicated business strategy stuff!”

    I don’t disagree in principle with what you say about design, mindset and inspiration; I disagree with the notion that design is unique in this regard. We know as much about teaching greatness in science and business as we do in design and art, and it’s a big mistake to represent design as being categorically different from other skills.

    Which is not to say that we should accept the mechanistic, passive view of education. There’s a sense in which designers are simultaneously being too arrogant and not arrogant enough: too arrogant by taking design out of the realm of other ordinary activity; not arrogant enough by restricting the critique of “toolpushers” to just design. In fact, this critique should be extended to other domains as well, not limited to just the “creative” skills.

  12. You’re reading in a ton of stuff that just isn’t in my comments, alsomike, and doing so in a really gratingly tendentious manner.

    I have no idea where you get the notion that I think design talent is any different from entrepreneurial intelligence or musical intelligence or athletic intelligence. You put that there.

    I have no idea where you get the notion that I harbor any disdain for competent toolpushers. You put that there.

    I particularly have no idea where you get the notion that I’m in any sense a Romantic. You put that there…and everyone who knows me is LOLing themselves silly at the thought.

    So tell you what: stop putting words in my mouth, stop dropping names like you’re ten minutes out of St. John’s, and stop wasting my time, huh?

  13. Heh. One final thought, and then I’ll let it go: the lack isn’t one of either logic or emotion. You’re correct in identifying that as a false dichotomy, but more primarily still it’s simply the wrong axis of consideration.

    As communities of practice, the problem with user-experience design and interaction design both is that they don’t take that little word design seriously enough. Admittedly, our materials are fewer in number and of wretched expressive quality, but how can you claim any insight into “interaction” and “experience” if you don’t love and obsess over details of architectural design, typography and graphic design, fashion design, industrial design?

    This is where the roots of the UX disciplines in HCI, CS, and library science truly tell, and why I’m so disappointed in them. This is why I ignore people who only follow the predictable parade of UX names on Twitter. Sure, that behavior is (so very) airless and self-referential, but far worse is that it turns its back on the endless streams of inspiration and practical insight flowing in from putatively adjacent concerns.

  14. I think the claim that UX and IxD are rooted in HCI, CS, and LIS is nothing less than a hijacking of the UX practice “community”. Very few people I know who practice UXD have any roots in any of those fields. Seriously. Maybe one in ten hail from HCI. The rest are rooted in other design fields (graphic, industrial), fine arts, architecture, psychology, literature, even history and business studies. It’s the most ragtag group of professionals I know of, which is why I still enjoy being a part of it.

    Now, it’s true that the momentum of the practice — the conferences that comprise it, and much of the prominent voices in the fields of UX still represent HCI and LIS ideas — but that doesn’t mean that it has to always be that way. It simply has to come into its own, really, and recognize and appreciate its more-diverse-then-we-realize roots.

  15. @JMS: What you write assumes that what people want is to accomplish goals. And it assumes that people don’t want coolness. In some contexts you might be right, but in a great many others you would not be right. People want to be and feel cool, sometimes far more than they want to get things done. Understanding a user’s desire to be emotionally satisfied is certainly a kind of empathy, just as necessary as understanding what they need.

  16. Actually, recent neuroscience stuff has found that there really is a sort of conflict in our brains when it comes to things like empathy.
    There’s a great Radio Lab on this
    http://www.wnyc.org/shows/radiolab/episodes/2006/04/28

    Also a paper I found here: http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/%7Ejgreene/

    (I got into this in my presentation on Context at IDEA — I’m doing a slightly updated version at IA Summit)

    I get what you’re saying about geeking out and forgetting the empathy. The debates about whether or not personas are useful, for example, completely miss this point — it’s not about the documentation but the empathetic *work* that needs to happen behind it. The document’s just a tool to remind us what the user’s skin feels like.

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